Arizona State University Sociology Essay
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WITH A NEW AFTERWORD
‘Men and women have had
their histories. This
book for the
– katf. bornstein
author of Gendei Outlaw
or of Stone
FEEL THE COMBINED
weight of women’s and trans oppression in
simultaneously. As a result,
trans liberation, because these
forced to battle both,
personally experience the relationship between
I’ve traveled across the
my own life.
United States talking about fighting trans
oppression – from a crowded potluck supper in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to an overflow audience in a cavernous university auditorium near Northampton, Massachu-
ages turn out, enthusiastically ready to discuss
movement impacts on women’s liberation.
We need to expand that dialogue, because women don’t just need to understand
the links between what they
trans people suffer in society, they
movements need each
Sex and gender
oppression of all forms needs to be fought in tandem with the combined strength of
movements and all our allies in society.
The development of the trans movement has raised a vital question that’s being
discussed in women’s communities all over the country. The discussion revolves
around one pivotal question: How is woman to be defined? The answer we give may
determine the course of women’s liberation for decades to come.
The question can’t be considered without understanding that women face such
constant dangers and harassment, day-in and day-out, that the attempt to define
generated by the need for safe space and clear-cut
pletely valid need.
But how can we create
think that if we define
safe space for
That’s a com-
“woman” as a fixed entity, we will draw borders that would
No matter what definition is used, many women who should be
inside will be excluded.
Let’s look first at the question of how woman can or cannot be defined. Some
women hold an “essential,” or biological definition, that one is born woman. Others, who define themselves as social constructionists, argue that women share a
common experience. I don’t think we can build women’s communities or a libera-
movement based on
A biological definition of woman is a dangerous direction for the women’s moveboundary would mark a definite break with
the key principle of the second wave of women’s liberation in the United States: that
not destiny. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “One
heart of that
oppressed because of birth biology. This
one should not be limited
not born but one becomes
a truth that has
in life or
to all trans peo-
and all women.
Of course, as a result of the oppression women face growing up in such a violentlv
anti-woman environment, some
a line between
understandable that an individual might do so out of
lumps John Brown and John D. Rockefeller
together as enemies and Sojourner Truth and Margaret Thatcher together as allies.
This view of who to trust and
of the women’s liberation
understanding that our oppression as women
economic system. But
in the seventies was the
built into the
also tyrannizes entire nationalities, subju-
gates people because of who they love, denies people their abilities, works people
near to death, and leaves
many homeless and hungry. And last but not least,
tem grinds up those who don’t fit a narrow definition of woman and man.
A view that the primary division of society is between women and men leads some
women to fear that transsexual women
are men in sheep’s clothing coming
across their border, or that female-to-
male transsexuals are going over
look like that same
enemy, or that
the border for intersex-
– right down the middle of
their bodies? Trans people of
and genders are not oppressors;
women, rank among
After years of television and Hollvwood
movies and schooling
of us have absorbed a biological defi-
“normal” and what
not. But in a society
struggle, even a
can be misused in an attempt to justih
and oppression. While we
top: Fifteenth-century engraving of North
and niece (1900).
into our classrooms.
Two-Spirits, working together gathering food.
Acoma moiaro flanked by
frogs, biological deter-
recognition that SOllie people have Vagi-
nas and Others have peiliseS.
in a pseudo-scientific
and sexism, the partitioning of the
make gender expression
and behavior modifica-
accounts suggest that although
our ancestors knew who was born with a vagina, who was born with
and whose genitals were more multi-faceted, they were not
And although women’s reproductive abil-
contributed to a general division of labor,
was not a hard-
was not the only boundary.
bear children and breast-feed
cases helped to determine
babies go through a long period of infancy during which
they need to be nursed and nurtured. But by all accounts, childcare
cultures was a
responsibility of each mother,
since not every woman bore children. 2
mation with which
tion of the
we haven’t had
a U.S. suf-
wearing her Congressional
Walker began cross-
to challenge the cultural construc-
both parents went through
the ritual pain of bearing a child
and both were
responsible for infant care. 3
Mary Edwards Walker,
modern view of childcare. For instance,
nor of every woman,
the early 1850s, inspired
by the feminist dress-reform move-
ment. She was suspended from Bowen
at the early division
of labor in coopera-
has to take into account the reports by
hundreds of social scientists of “women” in early cooperative societies who
Collegiate Institute after refusing to
resign from the all-male debating soci-
hunted and were accepted as men
and “men” who worked among the women and were
Then why do anthropologists continue to refer to them as women hunters and men gatherers, particularly when this insistence on their
accepted as women.
the face of the way these
ety. Despite opposition, in
was appointed an assistant surgeon
the Union army and adopted the same
uniform as her fellow soldiers. After
people were accepted by their own societies?
So although reproduction delineated a rough
boundary of human
was not decisive in deter-
the war, she was elected president of
the National Dress Reform Association.
accepted more than two sex/genders and allowed individuals to find their own
place within that spectrum.
The people we would
male-to-female transsexuals in these early societies
menstruated and wore “the leaves prescribed for
That means that
ing those born with penises.
a relationship to fertility
in their courses.” 4
1937 account of the North American Mohave by
Alfred L. Kroeber describes a male-to-female initiation ritual for youths of ten to
eleven years old, which, though provided by a white anthropologist, contrasts with
dominant Western view
fixed at birth.
morning the two women
and take him outdoors.
of the singers puts on the skirt and dances to the river in four
youth following and imitating. Then
give the youth the front
and back pieces of
his face white. After four days
Such persons speak, laugh,
painted again and
further account of the youths after the ceremony shows that they assumed
female names. In addition:
that their genitals be referred to by female terminology.
After finding a husband, they would simulate menstruation by scratch-
ing between their legs with a stick until blood was drawn.
were “pregnant,” “menstruations” would cease. Before “delivery” a
bean preparation would be ingested that would induce violent stomach pains dubbed “labor pains.” Following
would be a defecation,
ceremoniously buried. There
would then ensue a period of mourning by both husband and
At the other end of the spectrum are accounts that some of the
who had been born female were
men – even
believed not to menstruate. 7
those born with vaginas – were seen as outside the women’s
We need to combat the idea that a simple division of labor between women and
men in communal societies has left us with today’s narrow sex and gender system.
evidence exists that
pre-class societies respected
was the overthrow of communalism and the subsequent division
of society into classes that mandated the partitioning of the sexes and outlawed any
blurring of those “man-made” boundaries.
And we are left with
those arbitrary and
anti-human restrictions today.
trans people and women are inextricably entwined. In the past,
women and trans people were honored, you can find cooperative, communal production. And societies that degrade women and trans people are already
Our histories as
cleaved into classes, because those patriarchal divisions mandate a rigid categorization of sex
But how does
understanding help us today?
reject a fixed biological
boundary to define women as a group, what about the view that women share
mon oppression? I believe this is also a perilous approach
to glossing over racism
that can particularly lead
emerged within the second wave of women’s liberation in
the United States. One was represented by feminists who analyzed women’s oppression from a socialist-materialist viewpoint, the other by those who examined the psj
chological construction of
woman. Both branches
defined by oppression. Both currents recognized that arguments of biological
determinism have been used by the patriarchal ruling
However, since the
increasingly linked to a
classes for centuries as a
of feminism, the definition of “woman” has been
of shared bodily experiences, like rape, incest,
forced pregnancy, and battering.
The underlying assumption
often that this
physical oppression, experienced as a result of having a biologically female body,
the defining element of
“womanhood.” But women are not the only ones who
experience the horrors of rape, incest, sexual humiliation, and
mon bodily experiences that the
majority of women
ing water and carrying firewood or working
planet share are haul-
on an assembly-line – those
What about the male-tofemale transsexual women who have helped build the women’s movement over the
share the same experiences in society?
They experience women’s oppression on a daily, even hourly basis. So if facing women’s oppression defines being a woman, how long do you have to live it
before you’re “in”? Many lesbians went through a long period of heterosexuality
before coming out.
Would anyone argue that they should be excluded from lesbian
gatherings because they were heterosexual during their formative years?
Do white women share the exact same experience as women
women and rich women share an identical experience? What
ences of disabled women, single mothers, lesbians, Deaf women?
many different hardships and
about the experi-
of our experiences and
our resulting strengths and insights are just a small part of how many ways there are
be “woman” in
Recently I had coffee with someone I’ve
think of you as a
woman,” she explained
known since she was a teenager.
man – the kind that is so sensitive
quite cheerily, “but as a very, very
they don’t really exist.”
she arrived at this categorization.
“Well,” she said,
use being a
grew up without any
around men’s power, and
as a girl.
meant was she learned
being “feminine” to get around
distribution as part
of a safer-sex
Part Fo U r
C h 14
Make It Real!
This cartoon, created especially for Transqender Warriors
wildly popular lesbian cartoon series
by Alison Bechdel,
who draws the
men’s power. But I grew up very masculine, so the complex and powerful set of skills
that feminine girls developed to walk safely through the world were useless to
to learn a very different set of skills,
many of them
While we both grew
our experiences were dissimilar because our gender expressions were
girls and women face terrible condemnation and brutal- including sexual violence – for crossing the boundary of what is “acceptable”
very different. Masculine
female expression. But masculine
are not assumed to have a very high
consciousness about fighting women’s oppression, since we are thought to be imitating
As the women’s movement of the seventies examined the negative
attached to masculinity and femininity in this society, some thought that liberation
in creating a genderless
form of self-expression and
dress. But of course
another point on the spectrum of gender expression.
the adage that you can’t
cover? Well, you can’t
read a person’s overall consciousness by their gender expression.
In addition, gender doesn’t just
in two brands, like
perfume and cologne.
Take masculinity, for example, particularly since there’s an underlying assumption
and insensitive behavior of some men
that the brutal
move, or behave
linked to masculinity. Yet not
masculinity of oppressed
not the masculinity of Ku Klux Klan members. Gender
expressed differently in diverse nationalities, cultures, regions, and
And not all men in any given group express their masculinity in the same way. At
I couldn’t help but notice a man in the audience who was
very masculine, but there was something in his gender expression that held my
attention. At a later reception, he told me that he learned his masculinity from
women – butches had mentored him as a young gay male. He learned one variation
a recent speaking event,
of an oppressed masculinity.
Those who are feminine – male and female – don’t fare any better when
assumptions about their gender expression. Feminine
an extremely high
of sexual harassment and violence simply because of their
A great deal of woman-hating resides in attitudes towards femi-
And a great many bigoted generalizations are made about femme expression
“The higher the
and women endure
heels, the lower the IQ; the higher the skirt the lower the
are also not
have a very high consciousness
about fighting women’s oppression.
And what about males who
are considered “effeminate”? Feminists have justifi-
ably pointed out that the label
inherently anti-woman. But
gender-phobic, and anti-feminine.
The oppression of feminine men is an important one to me, since I consider drag
drag queens for “mocking
women’s oppression” by imitating femininity
to an extreme, just as I’ve been told
men. Feminists are justifiably angry at women’s oppression – so
believe, however, that those
who denounce drag queens aim
This misunderstanding doesn’t take gender oppression into account. For
instance, to criticize male-to-female drag performers, but leave out a discussion of
gender oppression, lumps drag queen RuPaul together with
a victim of gender oppression, as well as of racism.
a difference between the drag population and masculine
The Bohemian Grove, for example, is an elite United
States club for wealthy, powerful men that features comedy cross-dressing performances. But that’s not drag performance. Many times the burlesque comedy of
cruel female impersonations.
facing the footlights.
as anti-drag as
drag performance when
Many times drag performance calls for skilled impersonations
of a famous individual, like Diana Ross or Judy Garland, but the essence of drag per-
not impersonation of the opposite sex.
the cultural presentation of
an oppressed gender expression.
Our oppression and our identities – as drag queens and kings – are not simply
based on our clothing. The term “drag” only means “cross-dressing” to most people.
By that definition, we are people who put on garb intended for the opposite sex as a
kind of masquerade.
stage term, derived
true that the
word drag is believed
from the drag of the long
train of dresses
have originated as a
male actors wore. But
our gender expression, not our clothes, that shapes who we
Hopefully, the trans liberation
create a deeper understanding of
and gender oppression. Everyone has a stake in the struggle to uncover how
much cultural baggage is attached to the social categories of man and woman.
In addition, the women’s movement has an opportunity to make a tremendous
contribution by reaching out to all who suffer from sex and gender oppression.
Drag queens and kings, and many women who have not been a part of the women’s
movement, do not
necessarily reflect the
who have been part of a collective movement for change for twenty years. But that
doesn’t mean that they don’t feel their oppression or don’t want to fight for their
movement that shaped my consciousness exposed the
women. The movement revealed that inequality
institutionalized oppression of
begins at a very early age. But simply looking at the differences between what bovs
are taught only reveals a broad analysis of sexual oppression. Just as girls
experience different messages based on whether they are feminine, masculine, or
androgynous, boys do too.
to think that
messages of woman-hating and
produce the same consciousness
male youth who grows up
believing he will be part of the “good-ole boys club”
and one who grows up fearing
humiliation and violence at the hands of men.
the consciousness of male-to-
female transsexuals was shaped early on by “male privilege,” then why would thev
What is the consciousness of a child who is assigned one sex at birth, but grows up
identifying strongly with another sex? We need to examine how many ways there are
to be a woman or a man, and how gender oppression makes sex-role conditioning
Everyone who is living as a woman in this woman-hating society is dealing with
oppression every day and deserves both the refuge of being with other
be on the frontlines against
forms of sex and gender
of gender-phobia and
society, as well as in fighting all expressions
trans-phobia. In the simplest of terms, these twin evils are prejudices
taught since an early age. Gender-phobia targets
women who are
we have been
not feminine and
are not masculine. Trans-phobia creates fear of changing sex. Both need
be fought by all women, as well as by
As a rape
power of the women’s movement.
others in society.
understand the need for
safe space together
– free from
harassment and potential violence. But fear of gender variance also can’t be
allowed to deceptively cloak
can’t think of a better
example than my own, and my butch friends’, first-hand experiences in public
women’s toilets. Of course women need to feel safe in a public restroom; that’s a
serious issue. So
draw on the
when a man walks in, women immediately examine
looks flustered and embarrassed, or
the situation to
he seems threatening; they
they learned as young girls in this society to read body language
for safety or danger.
Now, what happens when butches walk into the women’s bathroom?
nudge each other with elbows, or
roll their eyes,
“Do you know
which bathroom you’re in?” That’s not how women behave when they really believe
there’s a man in the bathroom. This scenario is not about women’s safety – it’s an
example of gender-phobia.
women’s bathroom, and there were two
teenage drag queens putting on lipstick in front of the mirror, would you be in danger? If you called security or the cops, or forced those drag queens to use the men’s
room, would they be
segregation of bathrooms
need a safe place
clean individual bathrooms with signs
about more than just
read “Men” and “Sexually and Gender Oppressed,”
bathroom. Or even
on the doors
better, let’s fight for
that read “Restroom.”
women’s space does not
woman. The AIDS movement, for example, battled
the inclusion of transsexual sisters in
threaten the safety of any
against the right-wing characterization of gay men as a “high-risk group. ” We
no high-risk group – there are high-risk behaviors.
Therefore, creating safety in women’s space means we have to define unsafe behavunderstanding that there
behavior by white
of color, or dangerous
insensitivity to disabilities.
are not a Trojan horse trying to infiltrate
There have always been transsexual women helping to build the women’s movement – they are part of virtually every large gathering of women. They want to be
same reason every woman does –
to feel safe.
female-to-male transsexual brothers have a right to feel welcome at
women’s movement events or
lesbian bars. However, that shouldn’t feed into the
Part Fou r
C h 14
Make It Real!
who just couldn’t
deal with their oppression as lesbians. If that were true, then why does a large percentage of post-transition transsexual men identify as gay and bisexual, which may
female-to-male transsexuals were hutches
have placed them in a heterosexual or bisexual status before their transition? There
men who did help build the women’s and lesbian communities, and
a large base of friends there. They should enjoy the support of women on
everyone want their friends around them
their journey. Doesn’t
time of great
change? And women could learn a great deal about what it means to be a man
woman from sharing the lessons of transition.
boundaries around “woman” become trenches, what happens to intersex-
about who was born “woman”?
who were born female but get hassled for
really fix a policy that’s so clear
woman enough. We’ve been
that’s a frighteningly subjective
accused of exuding “male energy.”
border to patrol.
women – have to share
the same “energy” ?
we were going to decide who is a “real” woman, who would we empower to
decide, and how could the check-points be established? Would we all strip? How
could you tell if a vagina was not newly constructed? Would we show our birth certifiIf
How could you
determine that they hadn’t been updated
The Olympics tried it, but they had so many false results
back to relying on watching somebody pee in a cup for the drug test as the
enties to even begin to
took the tremendous social upheavals of the
draw the borders of women’s oppression.
ing up, no one even acknowledged that the system was stacked against women. But
women’s liberation movement laid bare the built-in machinerv of oppression
this society that’s
keeping us down.
oppressing me, or
your tie, or whether you change your sex, or how you express yourself. An economic
system oppresses us in this society, and keeps us fighting each other, instead of looking at the real source of this subjugation.
movement is not eroding the boundaries of women’s oppreswhenever new lands and new oceans have been discov-
ered, maps have always been re-charted to show their relationship to each other.
The modern trans liberation movement is redrawing the boundaries to show the
depth and breadth of sex and gender oppression
makes the women’s and
It is this
in this society.
What does it mean to be a woman in this society? How many different paths lead
to woman? How varied are our experiences, and what do we share in common? Isn’t
this the discussion we need to have in order to continue to build a dynamic women’s
movement? And yet, we can’t even begin the examination until all those who identify as
are in the
space. Definitions have created
not a definition
pretty unsafe space for
going to create
many of us who
open the door to everyone who is self-identified as woman, and who wants
women’s space. (Not every woman wants that experience.) Let’s keep the
door unlocked. Together we can plot
strategy for movement-building.
And we can set some good-sense ground rules for what constitutes unsafe behavior.
What should the sign on the door of the women’s movement read? I think the key
to victory are these three simple words: “All
women’s oppression, we need to recognize and
defend other sites of sex and gender oppression and organize an even larger struggle. The women’s and trans liberation movements are comprised of overlapping
in addition to fighting
populations and goals. Perhaps the unity of our two huge movements for justice will
that incorporates the struggles against
forms of sex and
The combined power of women, trans people, and all of our allies could give rise
powerful Sex and Gender Liberation movement!
whereas, gender discrimination
at the heart of Feminist poli-
whereas, theTransgendered and Transsexual Communities
same gender system
therefore are the target of marginalization, loss of medical care
and economic and
a lack of understanding and information on
be resolved that
adopt a policy that
Transgendered and Transsex-
further be recommended that
ine current policies
that discriminate against the
Transgendered and Transsexual Communities and engage
dialogue with organizations and groups fighting for the rights of
Transgendered and Transsexual people.
also be recommended that
NOW Conference in
be submitted to
resolution in support of trans lives and identities, passed on October 29,
state conference of the
Jersey National Organization for
Received: 1 August 2020
– Revised: 22 November 2020
Accepted: 28 November 2020
When “model minorities” become “yellow
peril”—Othering and the racialization of Asian
Americans in the COVID‐19 pandemic
| Harvey L. Nicholson Jr.
Department of Sociology and Criminology and
Law, University of Florida, Gainesville,
pandemic as a case study, this paper engages with debates
Yao Li, Department of Sociology and
Criminology and Law, University of Florida,
3219 Turlington Hall, P.O. Box 117330,
Gainesville, FL, USA.
Using the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19)
on the assimilation of Asian Americans into the US mainstream. While a burgeoning scholarship holds that Asians
are “entering into the dominant group” or becoming
“White,” the prevalent practices of othering Asians and
surging anti‐Asian discrimination since the pandemic
outbreak present a challenge to the assimilation thesis. This
paper explains how anger against China quickly expands to
Asian American population more broadly. Our explanation
focuses on different forms of othering practices, deep‐
seated stereotypes of Asians, and the role of politicians and
media in activating or exacerbating anti‐Asian hatred.
Through this scrutiny, this paper augments the theses that
Asian Americans are still treated as “forever foreigners”
and race is still a prominent factor in the assimilation of
Asians in the United States. This paper also sheds light on
the limitations of current measures of assimilation. More
broadly, the paper questions the notion of color‐blindness
or post‐racial America.
Asian Americans, assimilation, model minority, othering, pandemic,
racial discrimination, yellow peril
Sociology Compass. 2021;15:e12849.
© 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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2 of 13
1 | INTRODUCTION
Andrew Yang, an Asian American and former Democratic presidential candidate who famously claimed that he is
the opposite of Donald Trump, an “Asian man who likes math,” confessed that he felt a bit ashamed of being Asian
when being starred at and frowned upon at a grocery store in March 2020 (Yang, 2020). This happened just weeks
after he quit the presidential run and at a moment when he just thought his place in this nation “was more than ever
assured.” Yang’s discriminatory experience was not unique. Since the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019
(COVID‐19), across the United States, many Asian ethnics have suffered various forms of discrimination, from
physical attacks to verbal harassment to vandalism. For instance, in Midland, Texas, a Burmese American family,
including a 2‐ and 6‐year‐old, were stabbed during grocery shopping because the suspect thought they were
Chinese (Melendez, 2020). According to a recent survey, more than 30% of Americans have witnessed someone
blaming Asians for the coronavirus pandemic, whereas 60% of Asian Americans said they have seen the same
behavior (Ellerbeck, 2020). As of 3 June 2020, as many as 2066 instances of harassment against Asians have been
reported since mid‐March (Borja et al., 2020).
Disease threat often gives rise to discrimination and scapegoating “others,” for example, foreigners, immigrants,
and marginalized groups. For instance, during the Ebola outbreak of 2013, West African immigrants became victims
of racial discrimination and harassment. On the other hand, Black Americans were not folded into Ebola‐based
targeting, suggesting the accepted “Americanness” of Black Americans and the willingness to selectively distinguish
between Black Americans and West African immigrants. By contrast, in the pandemic brought on by COVID‐19, it is
not just Chinese immigrants, but any Asian American perceived as having connections to China (e.g., some Southeast
Asians and other East Asians) due to false stereotypes that Asians “look‐alike” and anti‐Asian/Chinese sentiment (e.
g., the “yellow peril” stereotype as discussed later), have become potential targets (Tessler, Choi, & Kao, 2020).1
This contrast raises the following questions: Why do Asian Americans become the target of racial aggression related
to COVID‐19? What does the rising anti‐Asian discrimination tell us about the assimilation of Asian Americans into
the US mainstream? Indeed, no group should face discrimination, regardless of their immigration status or ethnic
background. However, the COVID‐19 related discrimination facing Asian Americans as a collective certainly sheds
light on their “foreign” status in the American society.
Scholars have been debating about whether Asians are joining the American mainstream. A burgeoning
scholarship has shown that the boundaries between some Asian Americans2 and Whites are blurring or becoming
more flexible (for reviews, see Kim, 2007; Song, 2019). As one side of the debate argues, some Asian ethnics (e.g.,
East Asians and South Asians) are becoming “honorary Whites” and are changing the racial hierarchy in the United
States, despite never “achieving” full acceptance as “Whites” (Bonilla‐Silva, 2004). According to common measures
of assimilation, Asian Americans have been or will soon integrate into the dominant group. In some forecasts,
certain Asian ethnics (e.g., East Asians) will ultimately be perceived and counted as Whites before the mid‐century
Contradictory to the assimilation thesis, other scholars have argued that Asians are still considered “forever
foreigners” (Zhou, 2004). Despite being proclaimed as “model minority,” Asian Americans’ economic mobility often
engenders less social acceptance and intensifies racism towards them (Kim, 2007). At times, Asians are suspected as
foreign foes, attached to the long‐standing “yellow peril” stereotype. In this sense, Asians’ improved status alone
does not bring them into the US mainstream.
We find that the surge of anti‐Asian discrimination during the COVID‐19 pandemic provides a good opportunity to engage with the dialog about the assimilation of Asian Americans. The swift racialization of the coronavirus, we argue, is a strong case that exemplifies the perpetual marginalized and conditional status of Asian
Americans. In what follows, we first briefly review scholarship on the assimilation of Asians, the racialization of
Asians, and “othering”; then we draw upon the ongoing pandemic crisis as a case study to understand the dramatic
rise of anti‐Asian racism and evaluate the Asian assimilation thesis.
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2 | ARE ASIAN AMERICANS ASSIMILATING INTO THE US MAINSTREAM?
A large body of scholarship contends that some Asian ethnics are assimilating into the American mainstream or
becoming “White” (Alba & Nee, 2003; Gans, 2005; Nee & Holbrow, 2013). As pointed out, Whites view Asians as
being culturally more similar to them than Blacks and are more willing to accept Asians’ entry into the majority
group (Gallagher, 2004; J. Lee & Bean, 2007). Hence, Asians appear to “blend” more easily with Whites, and group
boundaries appear to be fading more rapidly for Asians than for Blacks (Jennifer Lee & Bean, 2010; Warren &
Twine, 1997). To facilitate their closeness to Whites and expedite the assimilation process, some Asians engage in
“Whitening behaviors” such as anglicizing their names or distancing themselves away from Blacks (Dhingra, 2003;
Zhao & Biernat, 2018). In this sense, Asian Americans are aligning with Whites in a new Black/non‐Black divide and
appear to be undergoing a process of social “whitening” (Gans, 2005) in ways akin to the incorporation of European
immigrants (Jennifer Lee & Bean, 2010; Warren & Twine, 1997). As social and cultural distances separating Asians
and Whites have been reduced, ethnic origins are not considered to be especially relevant for most interactions
(Alba & Nee, 2003, p. 287).
When evaluating the incorporation of Asians Americans into the mainstream, previous studies often rely on
commonly used measures of immigrant assimilation, including socioeconomic status (SES), spatial concentration,
language assimilation, and intermarriage (Waters & Jiménez, 2005). According to these measures, Asian Americans,
as a group, are “blending in” with the mainstream society. As argued by Jiménez and Horowitz (2013), Asian
Americans, not Whites, are in some cases associated with success. Put differently, Asian’s ability to move up the
socioeconomic ladder, their educational achievements, and their growing rates of residential integration and
intermarriage with Whites are often viewed as evidence of Asians’ assimilation (Drouhot & Nee, 2019; Gans, 2012;
Jennifer Lee & Bean, 2010). Thus, compared to class, the significance of race is declining in the post‐civil rights era
(Sakamoto, Goyette, & Kim, 2009).
3 | FOREVER FOREIGNERS AND THE RACIALIZATION OF ASIAN AMERICANS
Contrary to the assimilation thesis, numerous other studies have maintained that Asians Americans are still seen as
“forever foreigners” (Okihiro, 2014; Tuan, 1998; Xu & Lee, 2013; Zhou, 2004). Unlike people of European descent,
Asians are perceived as unassimilable and their loyalty to the United States is often questioned (Ancheta, 2006;
Kim, 1999). In a 2008 study, participants, who are all Americans, implicitly regarded Lucy Liu, a New York‐born star
of Chinese heritage, as being less American than Kate Winslet, an English actress, even when they were informed of
each actress’s nationality (Devos & Ma, 2008). Moreover, Asians are continuously subject to various forms of
racialization, marginalization, and civic ostracism (Lee & Kye, 2016). Viewed as being clumsy, lacking appropriate
social and communication skills, and having extremely low levels of warmth and social desirability, Asian Americans
are the most likely to be left out in the socialization process, rejected by peers, and least likely to be initiated
friendship with (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; Zhang, 2010). Asians are also an easy target of racial harassment,
hostility, discrimination, and violence (Chou & Feagin, 2015). In the workplace, while they may be perceived to be
competent workers, they are seldom viewed as visionary leaders—confronted with an invisible barrier to career
advancement called “bamboo ceiling” (Chin, 2016; Jennifer Lee & Zhou, 2020).
In effect, the racialization of Asians have long been under the influence of a pervasive Western tradition called
“Orientalism,” in which the West constructs itself as a superior civilization in opposition to an “exotic” but inferior
“Orient” and frames “those” Orientals as a constant threat to the well‐being of “us” Westerns (Said, 2003).
Correspondingly, immigrants from Oriental countries—not matter how long they reside in the United States—are
cast as inferior yet perpetual threatening foreigners to Whites (Smith, 2016).
Considered not truly “American,” Asian Americans are stereotyped as either “model minority” or “yellow peril.”
The model minority trope, which began to gain traction during the 1960s, stresses Asians’ high achievements in SES
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and focuses on Asian culture to explain their “success” (Zhou, 2004).Yet, no matter how Asian Americans are
successful in upward mobility, they, at best, are model minorities (Lee & Kye, 2016). Given that the notion is
culturally based, some scholars simply regard the model minority trope as a “camouflaged Orientalism”
(Chou, 2008). In her influential racial triangulation theory, Kim (1999) elaborates on how Whites Americans
valorize Asian Americans—for example, as “model minority”—relative to subordinate Blacks and meanwhile they
construct Asians as immutably foreign and unassimilable with Whites to ostracize them from politics and civic
membership; the conjunction of the two processes—relative valorization and civic ostracism, both based on cultural
and/or racial groups—helps protect White privileges from both Black and Asian American encroachment and ensures the domination of Whites over the two minority groups (Kim, 1999, pp. 107, 112). The model minority myth,
thus, is actually instrumental to racializing and marginalizing Asian ethnics (Ancheta, 2006). It also helps divide
racial minority groups by pitting Asians and other minorities against each other and leads to discounting structural
and cumulative disadvantages that other minority communities face and to denigrate other racial minorities as
“problem” minorities (Kawai, 2005; Kim, 1999; Xu & Lee, 2013).
Yellow peril, by comparison, is a more negative and conspicuously racist trope—as a more direct reflection of
Orientalism and with a much longer history. Here, Asians are denigrated as dishonest, diseased invaders, viewed
culturally and politically inferior to Whites, and framed as a great threat to Whites (Del Visco, 2019). White
Americans perceive Asians as inassimilable foreigners who “would eventually overtake the nation and wreak social
and economic havoc” (Fong, 2002, p. 189). Throughout history, Asian immigrants have long been associated with
disease and filth and considered a threat to Whites. Over a century ago, the press, politicians, and even public
health experts portrayed Asian immigrants (including Chinese and Filipinos) as a menace to the nation’s health
morals, technological superiority, and the well‐being of Whites (Eichelberger, 2007; Gee & Ro, 2009).
The stereotypes of Asians often swing between yellow peril and model minority—the seemingly opposite
stereotypes coexist, featuring dialectical relationships (Hurh & Kim, 1989; Kawai, 2005; Okihiro, 2014). In
particular, at moments of crisis or competition, the yellow peril discourse frequently comes to the fore. When Japan
was blamed for US economic difficulties in the 1980s and early 1990s, the perceived threat of this Asian country
was quickly linked to Asian Americans and triggered a spike of anti‐Asian aggression in the United States
(Tuan, 1998). One case in point is the brutal killing of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982 by two
White autoworkers who called Vincent a “Jap” (Kim, 1999). The quick association of competition with an Asian
nation (Japan) to anti‐Asian violence exemplifies that Asian Americans were regarded as outsiders and potential
foes to America. This conspicuous anti‐Asian racism reflects Whites’ sense of entitlement to “defend” what they
assume “belongs” to them and to fight against groups who deemed a threat to Whites’ privilege and well‐being.
Likewise, more recently, with the rise of China and the increasingly intensified US–China competition, the
target to blame has shifted from Japan to China. A number political ads, which accuse China for stealing American
manufacturing jobs or imagine a scenario in which Chinese professor and students gloat over and laugh at the
downfall of the US empire (Chin, 2010; Weiner, 2012), explicitly cast China and its people as a significant threat and
abominable enemy to the United States. Correspondingly, the American government has frequently suspected
Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans alike as spies who steal technology from America. Senator Tom Cotton
has even famously suggested that Chinese students should be banned from studying technology and science in the
United States.3 A study finds that the Department of Justice has disproportionately charging Chinese and other
Asian Americans—no matter guilty or innocent—with espionage (Kim, 2018), and many charges against Chinese
American scientists were later dropped without full explanation and accountability. High‐profile victims of racial
profiling include Dr. Wen Ho Lee and Dr. Xiaoxing Xi. Even after prosecutors have dropped all charges, some
scientists still got fired for reasons that they were originally prosecuted for, as seen in the case of hydrologist
Sherry Chen (Wang, 2017). Distrust of people of Chinese heritage has long been driving decision‐making at the
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other US security agencies since the Cold War—even American‐born
Chinese considered “Chinese at heart” (Bloomberg Businessweek, 2019). The readiness of security agencies to view
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Chinese Americans as potential spies rather than loyal American citizens can be seen as modern manifestations of
the “yellow peril” trope and the continuous marginalization of Asian Americans, despite their achievements.
Therefore, both the yellow peril and model minority tropes characterize Asians’ marginalized status in the
United States as perpetual “outsiders” or unassimilable “others.” The deep‐seated culturally based racism renders
them vulnerable to racial discrimination, aggression, and even violence, especially during times of crises.
4 | OTHERING
In the face of a crisis such as public health threat, people tend to resort to “othering”—dissociating themselves from
the threat and blaming others—other countries, foreigners, stigmatized groups or other minorities, which helps
reduce the powerlessness experienced during the crisis (Eichelberger, 2007). Over a century ago when Irish and
Jews had not become “White” in the United States, impoverished Irish immigrants were stigmatized as the bearers
of cholera, whereas tuberculosis was dubbed the “Jewish disease” (Kraut, 2010). Indeed, othering can be seen in the
way how diseases are named. In the 15th century, syphilis was variously referred to as “French pox” by the English,
morbus Germanicus by the French, or “Chinese disease” by the Japanese (Joffe, 1999). Through othering, the outgroup and their “immoral” behavior or cultural norms—perceived as inferior to ingroup—should be to blame for the
origins and spread of disease (Briggs & Mantini‐Briggs, 2003; Nelkin & Gilman, 1988). This is evident in linking
Africa and African culture to the outbreak of Ebola and blaming “unhygienic” Chinese cultural habits for the
emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Gilles et al., 2013; Kapiriri & Ross, 2020).
Furthermore, “the other” can be depicted as villains who actively plot for a crisis and maliciously set out to
disseminating diseases (Joffe, 1999). An example of the “evil‐other” conspiracy theories is the belief that the Black
Death was caused by Jews who conspired with the Devil to poison Christian wells (Wagner‐Egger et al., 2011).
More recently, the H1N1 outbreak was framed as a plot planned by terrorists to attack America by using Mexican
immigrants as walking, talking weapons of germ warfare (McCauley, Minsky, & Viswanath, 2013).
Disease threat can not only lead to avoidance or stigmatization of outgroups, but can inspire violent xenophobic reactions (Joffe, 1999). Although foreigners and immigrants are consistently associated with germs and
contagion (Faulkner, Schaller, Park, & Duncan, 2004), in the COVID‐19 pandemic, it is not only immigrants but also
American citizens—Asian Americans—who suffer racist harassment and attacks. Below we flesh out how the
pandemic is racialized and the othering of Asians in the United States.
5 | CASE STUDY: DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ASIANS IN THE COVID‐19 PANDEMIC
Since the COVID‐19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, in early 2020, anti‐Asian discrimination has been on the rise. Asian
Americans from all walks of lives, including the presidential candidate, journalists, college professors, students, and
supermarket cashiers, have become the target of racial hostility. On the front lines fighting the coronavirus, doctors
and nurses of Asian ancestry have heard verbal slurs or patients refuse treatment from Asian professionals
(Jan, 2020). As people have avoided Chinatowns since the outbreak, Asian businesses have also been hit hard, with
many being shut down; as a result, the unemployment rate among Asians is skyrocketing (Liao, 2020). Sinophobia
and hostility against Asians also surged in social media, including Twitter and 4chan (an extremist Web community;
Schild et al., 2020). Figure 1 is an example of a violent threat against Asians in New York Chinatown, which
appeared on Instagram.
In the COVID‐19 era, Asian nationals and Asian Americans alike can be victims of xenophobia and racial hatred.
In March, the FBI warned of a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans “based on their assumption that a
portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID‐19 with China and Asian American populations” (Thorbecke &
Zaru, 2020). Many Americans simply blame all Asians as a group for COVID‐19. This then begs the question: why
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A threat of anti‐Asian violence on Instagram, 1 April 2020 (Zannettou et al., 2020)
does the hostility and anger against China expand to the Asian American population more broadly? This expansion,
first, suggests that Asian Americans are outsiders, not Americans. Members of the dominant society perceive Asians
as a threat to American society, taking valued resources and opportunities “reserved” for Americans. This outsider
status also assumes that, regardless of whether they were born in the United States, Asians are loyal to other
nations. Asians, in this sense, are not truly “American,” and therefore, cannot be trusted. Second, it demonstrates
the visceral stereotype that all Asian Americans “look alike” or are of Chinese ancestry. Because many Americans
hold this false idea, this likely adds to the belief that Asians, no matter their actual ethnic origins, are “taking away”
valued resources from the “true Americans” and hold stronger ties to other countries in competition with the
United States. (e.g., China).
5.1 | Othering and the revival of “yellow peril” trope
The association of Asians with virus is emblematic of the “othering” practices, fitting easily with the deep‐seated
“yellow peril” stereotype. Although the exact origin of the virus remains unclear, Chinese and their “unhygienic” or
“immoral” eating practices are quickly under attack for its surge (Zhang, 2020). Images and videos of Chinese or
other Asians eating insects, snakes, or mice, which are uncommon in China and is irrelevant to the current outbreak,
frequently circulate on social media or in clickbait news stories (Palmer, 2020). Among them is a widely‐shared
video showing a woman eating bat soup. Though the video did not actually take place in China, it became a
convenient showcase to spout untruths about Chinese culture and the imagined origins of COVID‐19
(Barrow, 2020). Such imagination has swiftly reignited the yellow peril trope that portrays Chinese as “uncivilized,
barbaric others” (Zhang, 2020). Words and actions that dehumanize Chinese people and treat their lives as less
worthy consequently abound in physical and virtual worlds (Schild et al., 2020). A post on Facebook by a PhD
candidate at a well‐recognized university is revealing: “There is a special place in hell reserved for the f‐‐king
Chinese and their archaic culture…I wish it had wiped the whole country off the planet…China will learn nothing
and will continue to consume wildlife into extinction. What a horrible, backwards culture and way of thinking”
(Zannettou et al., 2020).
“Evil‐other” conspiracy theories, the variant of “othering” narratives, have also been popular since the early
stages of the coronavirus outbreak. In one version, the virus is part of a Chinese “covert biological weapons
program,” targeting the West including the United States (Sardarizadeh & Robinson, 2020). In Dallas, a lawyer even
filed lawsuits against China for such claims (Krause, 2020). The baseless claim has also been pushed by numerous
groups on Facebook and Twitter accounts. Terms such as “biowepon” (sic) and “bioattack” proliferated on 4chan0 s
“politically incorrect” board (a popular extremist Web community)—as a user posted, “Anyone that doesn’t realize
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this is a Chinese bioweapon by now is either a brainlet or a chicom noodle nigger” (Schild et al., 2020). The depiction
that Chinese are villains who intentionally created and spread the virus fits squarely with the yellow peril rhetoric in
which Asians are framed as “devils” and “invaders” to overtake nations dominated by Whites. Although the conspiracy theories lack evidence and have been dismissed by scientists, they help fan the flames of racist hatred.
The various forms of othering and racial discrimination since the pandemic, thus, illustrate that Asians are still
5.2 | Othering Asians by politicians and the media
Politicians and the media played an important role in the racialization of the pandemic. Even after the World Health
Organization specifically naming the disease COVID‐19 to avoid regional or ethnic stigma, political leaders,
administrative officials, and media commentators have frequently referred to the ailment the “Chinese virus” or
“Wuhan virus.” President Donald Trump has repeatedly and deliberately called it the “Chinese virus” (Orbey, 2020)
or “kung flu” (Guardian, 2020). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went with “Wuhan virus” (Finnegan, 2020) and
claimed without evidence that the virus emerged from a Wuhan lab (Pamuk & Brunnstrom, 2020). A Republican
strategy memo advised Senate candidates to justify that it is right to name it Chinese or Wuhan virus (O’Donnell
Associates, 2020). Such message echoed or exacerbated the public sentiment—more than 50% of Americans said
they somewhat or strongly agreed with Trump using the term “Chinese virus” (Carpenter, 2020). Although Democrats slammed Republican rhetoric as xenophobia (Muwahed, 2020), an ad released by Joe Biden’s presidential
campaign, which criticizes Trump’s travel ban of travelers (many are American citizens) from China into America as
not airtight as Trump claims, brought disapproval that it can also spur anti‐Asian bias (Myerson, 2020). Amid the
surge of anti‐Asian racism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases,
selected a Chinese work of art on the cover of its May issue on respiratory viruses (see Figure 2), which seems to
implicitly link the pandemic with Chinese culture.
Politicians have also echoed or spearheaded the “evil‐other” conspiracy theories. For example, Senator Tom
Cotton embraced the fringe theory that the coronavirus was manmade by Chinese scientists as a biowarfare
weapon (Sharma, 2020). Peter Navarro, a White House adviser, accused China of sending “hundreds of thousands
of Chinese” to “seed” the coronavirus around the world (Porter, 2020). When the US authorities associated the
disease with Chinese, implicitly or explicitly, they sided with the message that COVID‐19 is a Chinese problem—the
other’s problem. Such narrative can powerfully activate or stoke xenophobia, empowering anti‐Asian hostility from
While the media have reported incidents of racial violence and harassment of Asians, its coverage and commentaries on the pandemic also contribute to anti‐Asian discrimination. Major news outlets such as the New York
Times and Forbes have chosen pictures of Chinatown or Asian people in masks to accompany their news coverage of
coronavirus, even when the news is irrelevant to Chinatown or China (Kamb, 2020). More explicitly, derogatory or
offensive headlines such as “China is the real sick man of Asia”—an op‐ed in Wall Street Journal—were seen not only
as insensitive of China’s painful colonial history, but also perpetuating the stereotype that Chinese are disease‐
ridden (Zhang, 2020). As for conservative media, Fox News and the Washington Times ran stories about conspiracy
theories, either calling “Wuhan coronavirus” China’s “coronavirus distraction campaign” or suspecting the virus’
origin from a lab involved in China’s “covert biological weapons programme” (Carlson, 2020; Gertz, 2020). Rush
Limbaugh, a conservative radio host, claimed the coronavirus was being weaponized to bring down Trump (Sharma,
2020). The conspiracy theories and Sinophobic slurs went viral on social media, as shown in various identified
combinations of Asian‐ethnic slurs decorating COVID‐19, including “chinkiepox,” “kungflu,” and “chinaids” (indicating “China” “engineered” the virus) (Schild et al., 2020; Zannettou et al., 2020). Both mass media and social
media, thus, facilitates the dissemination of derogatory content, conspiracy theories, and hateful speech towards
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The cover image of a CDC journal
6 | CONCLUSION
No doubt, the status of Asian Americans, once described as the derisive designation “yellow horde,” has been
improved dramatically in the post‐civil rights era (Gans, 2005). Today, Asian Americans are high‐ranking government officials, big corporation leaders, and elite college presidents. According to frequently used measures of
assimilation, Asian Americans appear to be assimilating into the US mainstream. Nonetheless, the swift surge of
anti‐Asian racism and “othering” practices during the COVID‐19 pandemic exposed the marginalized and conditional status of Asian Americans. The quick shift in labels attached to Asians from “model minority” to “yellow peril”
presents a prime example of their “unAmericaness.” In this sense, this paper casts doubt on the assimilation of
Asians into the American mainstream and points out limitations of current measures of assimilation. Contrary to
previous studies arguing that race has become a weakening role in the assimilation of Asians, this paper augments
the thesis that race is still vital and Asians are still treated as “perpetual foreigners” in the United States. Asians’
improved status has not fundamentally changed their marginalization as a racial minority in the country. Additionally, the persistent racialization of Asian Americans despite their considerable gains in socioeconomic
advancement and other indicators of assimilation suggests some limitations of existing measures of assimilation.
This paper also challenges the notion of the United States as a post‐racial society or the color‐blindness
thesis. Typical colorblind narratives such as claims that racism is something belonging to the past (Bonvilla‐Silva,
2014; Omi & Winant, 2015) are proved to be untenable as seen in the racial hostility against Asians during the
COVID‐19 outbreak. The proliferation of incidents racially targeting Asians in the pandemic clearly amplifies
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discrimination that Asians have been experiencing for long. In the near future, considering coronavirus not
disappearing overnight, the resulting economic fallout and mass unemployment, the intensifying competition
between the United States and China, and both Democratic and Republican parties competing to outflank the
other in anti‐China rhetoric, harassment, and attacks against Asian Americans will probably continue to be part
of the dark reality.
Finally, the pandemic and other circumstances facing Asian Americans may influence both intra and interracial
group solidarity. Asian Americans of various ethnic backgrounds have faced attacks, harassment, and racial hostility
due to COVID‐19. Panethnic linked fate, the feeling that what occurs to a member of one’s own racial group can
affect individual group members (Haynes & Skulley, 2012), is increasing among Asian ethnics due to the anti‐Asian
rhetoric of the Trump Administration (Le, Arora, & Stout, 2020). Such rhetoric, coupled with shared COVID‐19
related discrimination, is fostering the emergence of grassroots movements led by Asian Americans. Such stark
increases in the levels of anti‐Asian discrimination may also move Asian Americans to organize and mobilize with
other communities of color. For example, during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement reignited after police
killing of George Floyd, Asian American activists joined in solidarity to combat anti‐Black discrimination within their
own communities and in recognition that their “White adjacent” social position is indeed tenuous and used to
diminish the plight of Blacks and Latinxs (Lang, 2020). Overall, anti‐Asian and anti‐Chinese discrimination is likely to
enhance these activities, as experiences of discrimination among minority groups is often the catalyst to cross‐
racial solidarity and political mobilization (Craig & Richeson, 2012).
On the other hand, a splintering may be emerging within the Asian American community among some Asian
ethnics. For example, although the majority (70%) of Asian Americans support affirmative action, support among
Chinese Americans is the lowest (56%) compared to other Asian ethnic subgroups (Yam, 2020). There also appears
to be a growth in support of conservative political ideologies and candidates among Vietnamese Americans (Asian
and Pacific Islander American Vote, 2020), primarily due to fears of Communism, Trump’s “tough on China” talk,
and disagreement over liberal policies (Nguyen, 2020). While the forging of ties with other marginalized racial
groups and the Asian American community at large may not emerge as simply for a small subgroup of Chinese and
Vietnamese Americans, it is unlikely to impede intra‐ and interracial group solidarity among most members of these
groups. In order to increase feelings of solidarity across all Asian ethnics and other racial minority populations (e.g.,
Blacks), it is important to find ways to develop a sense of linked fate, which enhances both intra and inter‐racial
solidarity among Asians, Blacks, and Latinx (Nicholson, Carter, & Restar, 2020; Sanchez & Masuoka, 2010). In this
sense, to what extent the COVID‐19 pandemic can affect collective action among Asian Americans and between
Asians and other minority groups remains to be seen.
A C K N O W LE D G M EN T
The authors received no financial support for the research.
Asians of South Asian ancestry, while included in the Asian racial category, may not be targeted by COVID‐19 related
discrimination for these reasons.
We recognize diversity within Asian Americans. Different Asian groups differ in socioeconomic and educational
achievements, among other things (Lee & Kye, 2016; Sakamoto et al., 2009). Certain segments of Asians such as Filipinos
are considered as part of “collective blacks,” whereas Eastern Asians such as Chinese are regarded as “Honorary Whites”
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A U TH O R BI O GR A PH IE S
Yao Li is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology and Law at the University of
Florida. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to UF, She was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and was a
lecturer at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Playing by the Informal Rules—Why the Chinese
Regime Remains Stable Despite Rising Protests (Cambridge 2019; Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics).
Her research combines quantitative and qualitative methods to address debates in the fields of social movements, environmental studies, political sociology, and development. She is currently working on a new book
project on waste management with a focus on China, Taiwan, and the United States.
Harvey L. Nicholson Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the
University of Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Central Florida. His research focuses
on racial and ethnic minority health, substance use, and racial attitudes between minority groups. His work has
been published in various peer‐reviewed journals, including, but not limited to, Sociology of Race & Ethnicity,
Ethnicity & Health, and Race and Social Problems.
How to cite this article: Li Y, Nicholson HL. When “model minorities” become “yellow peril”—Othering and
the racialization of Asian Americans in the COVID‐19 pandemic. Sociology Compass. 2021;15:e12849.
“They Don’t Know Anything!” Latinx Immigrant
Students Appropriating the Oppressor’s Voice
LILIA D. MONZÓ
This article discusses internalized oppression among Latinx1 communities through a revolutionary
critical pedagogy. Data from a two-year ethnography of Latinx immigrant families show that
students were developing deficit perspectives toward their parents, claiming that “they don’t know
anything,” based on their positioning as powerless and generationally and culturally out of touch.
The article discusses that within-group conflicts support the interests of a transnational capitalist
class by severing opportunities for class [and race] consciousness. [Latino, Latina, immigrants,
critical pedagogy, Marxist, home-school relations, racism, internalized oppression]
Make sure to register on time because if you wait until the last minute then the good classes are full.
It’s always the black and Latino students that wait until the last minute. You know it’s true! We
always do that! Why would you want to settle for crumbs when you can have a piece of the pie?
–Latina Community College Counselor
For many people of color, internalized oppression is a taboo subject, hidden to preserve
our dignity. It has generally been treated in psychological terms as something people of
color do to themselves (Pyke 2010). I wrestled with revealing our secret humiliation but
recognized the need to disclose internalized oppression as a social process of domination
implicated in maintaining white supremacy within capitalism.
Our societal discourses present Latinx students through deficit frames: that they lack
motivation, have low aspirations, and live with problems in the home (Volk and Long
2005). In the quote above, the Latina college counselor at a community college that the
participants and I visited as part of the broader ethnographic study attempted to support
the Latinx students seeking information. Yet she unwittingly adopted a deficit perspective,
failing to consider that Latinx and black students may be the last to enroll because they lack
the economic, social, and cultural capital that helps white students mediate the process. She
unquestioningly accepted the normalized view of a first-come, first-served enrollment
process that structures inequality. How is it that some Latinxs come to blame their own
communities for overwhelming inequities?
This all too commonplace scenario exemplifies the concept of internalized oppression, a
belief or fear among people of color that perhaps whites have been right all along and that
non-whites are not as smart, beautiful, resourceful, good, or deserving of success. For
Latinxs and other people of color, this deficit is often attributed to race, culture, language,
and immigration. Internalized oppression depicts a deeply ingrained acceptance of
dominant ideologies (Pyke 2010) that support existing social relations of production and
asymmetrical relations of power and privileges (Darder and Torres 2004; McLaren 2012).
Critical pedagogy, stemming from Paulo Freire’s work (1970), foregrounds the
conditions of inequality of our society and the role of education in critical consciousness
and transformation. Peter McLaren (2012) and others (Allman 1999) use a revolutionary
critical pedagogy whose central aim is to confront the social and material conditions set up
at local and global levels to serve the interests of a now transnational capitalist class
Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 47, Issue 2, pp. 148–166, ISSN 0161-7761, online ISSN 1548-1492.
C 2016 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
“They don’t know anything!”
(Robinson 2008). A revolutionary critical pedagogy brings our attention to class struggle
and the conditions of exploitation that set up common antagonisms, including racism, that
prevent class-consciousness, including inter- and intra-group conflict.
In this article, I draw on ethnographic data to suggest that schools position Latinx
students to develop a deficit perspective toward their parents and discuss how these
findings perpetuate a culture of internalized oppression in Latinx communities that
ultimately serves capitalist interests. I end with recommendations to develop a generation
of Latinx students who have critical understandings of our world and the agency to act
toward our liberation.
The social relations of production that McLaren (2012), Antonia Darder and Rodolfo
Torres (2004), William Robinson (2008), and others associate with the transnational
capitalist class create the conditions that result in a deep structure of racism that guarantees
wealth, privilege, and power to whites by systematically denying equal rights and
opportunities to people of color, especially blacks and Latinxs. The dominant group
controls the production of accepted and commonsense knowledge and ideologies that
become deeply embedded in our institutions and cultural practices. Whiteness becomes an
invisible template by which we compare others and ourselves. Yet, because whiteness as a
discourse and set of social and cultural practices remains hegemonic, it claims a normative
status and simultaneously denies its existence.
Paulo Freire (1970) argues that the oppressed, having few opportunities to critically
examine their social position in society, are unwittingly complicit with dominant group
ideologies and practices, seeing these as normal and worthy. Stuart Hall (1986) defines
internalized racism as “the ‘subjection’ of the victims of racism to the mystifications of the
very racist ideology which imprison and define them” (26). Internalized oppression works
to ensure that people of color will accept their social positioning within the existing social
structure in which whites claim power and privilege as their inalienable right (Pyke 2010).
Internalized oppression divides Latinx communities and locks in the existing social
stratification designed to ensure a low-wage labor force. The design is in the internal logic of
capital that propels itself to maximize profits. Drawing on the inversion thesis, “the products
as well as the actions of people take on the form of an autonomous power that determine and
constrain the will of the subjects that engender them” (Hudis 2012:42). Capitalism becomes a
totalizing force so structurally ingrained that to act against it seems inconceivable.
In the Latinx community, internalized racism exists over ethnic identity: who is a better
Latinx, who is too Anglo, who has greater Spanish and/or English skills (Padilla 2004). It
projects a “defensive othering” (Pyke 2010) by distancing from the negative associations
ascribed to a subgroup as in the case of Latinxs who vote positively on anti-immigrant
legislation. Successful Latinxs who experience internalized oppression question their
abilities, feel like frauds, and fear being outed as incompetent (Medina and Luna 2000).
Latinx immigrant students sometimes attempt to pass for English fluent in order to appear
o and Rueda 2009).
Schooling in Latinx Communities: A Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy
Revolutionary critical pedagogy (Allman 1999; McLaren 2012) conceptualizes the
violence toward and within communities described above as a function of capital interests.
Under conventional Marxism, racism and other antagonisms constitute and are constituted
by relations of production and function to divide workers and disrupt class consciousness.
Fundamental to transnational capital interests is the unequal value of our labor and the
Anthropology & Education Quarterly
Volume 47, 2016
incessant ideological demand for competition that makes human beings claim their worth
in relation to the worth of others. Thus, many come to see communities of color as less
worthy than the dominant group who has higher rates of academic achievement and
greater wealth. The fight over presumed limited resources allotted to working-class
Latinxs sustains the inter-ethnic conflict that guarantees a docile and fragmented labor
Our education system is complicit in this design through policy and practice. The hyper
testing culture supports competition, ideologies of labor power, and the desire for coveted
positions that require an exploited class to support. Schools in Latinx communities prepare
students for low-skill labor through (1) prioritizing testing and reductive, English-only
instruction at the cost of critical thinking (Gutierrez et al. 2009); (2) the epistemocide that
McLaren calls la cultura matanza or culture killing (personal communication, April 28, 2013)
resulting from an Eurocentric curriculum that renders people of color invisible (Gonzalez,
Moll, and Amanti 2005); and (3) highly structured and increasingly policed schools that
promote fear, docility, and limited creativity (Anyon 1980; Beger 2002).
This assault on communities of color is also evident in the home–school relations found
in Latinx communities where parents are often denigrated due to a privileging of the
professional knowledge of school personnel over the experiential knowledge of parents
and the assumption that they do not have the social or cultural capital to make the
educational system responsive to them (Monz
o 2005). Other studies have documented that
Latina mothers experience symbolic violence in their interactions with school personnel
that leave them feeling undervalued and vulnerable (Monz
o 2013a; Salas 2004). Society
members, including teachers, are socialized to dominant ideologies and engage in racist
performances that obscure class struggle and appear instead as if inequalities are related to
identity politics and society’s deficit theorizing.
A revolutionary critical pedagogy (Allman 1999; McLaren 2012, 2016) posits a theory and
practice, a praxis, for transforming the existing social relations of exploitation by creating
conditions for collective struggle, such that we may be able to develop the awareness of our
position in a capitalist world; the ability to imagine new, more equal or equitable relations;
and the will to self-actualize toward this transformation. In McLaren’s words, “Praxis. . . is
the ontological process of becoming human. . .denouncing oppression and dialectically
inaugurating new forms of social, educational, and political relationships” (2016:section I).
Revolutionary critical pedagogy recognizes current relations of production as
historically developed and grounds its praxis in the daily concrete experiences of local and
transnational communities. As McLaren and Jaramillo (2010) note citing Teresa Ebert:
Ebert subjects experience to Marxist critique so that it is possible to see how, through the exercise of
power, the dominant structures of class rule protect their practices from being publicly scrutinized
as they appropriate resources to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many. [McLaren
and Jaramillo 2010:4]
We must then examine how the social relations of exploitation are normalized within
Latinx communities. The privileging of school personnel expertise over parental
knowledges is but one example of how the commodification of knowing through degreegranting educational programs sustains the power and privilege of the white capitalist class.
Media spectacles of Latinx immigrants sustain the image of a backward and uncivilized
culture aligned to ideologies of disengaged and unknowing Latinx parents (Monz
Internalized oppression often appears as a deficit among the oppressed group and, as in
this case, a problem within the family. The relationship between internalized oppression
and the broader structural social relations of exploitation is obscured. Further, the
education system, positioned as an apolitical institution that seeks only to develop a neutral
“They don’t know anything!”
set of skills and content knowledge (even though it is state and federally determined), is
ideologically distanced from capital interests. The relationship between class and
underachievement and its necessity under capitalism remains hidden.
An important critique of critical pedagogy and Marxism is that these frameworks treat
oppression monolithically by subsuming a wealth of diversity within the broad categories
of oppressed and oppressor. Class within a Marxist framework is not an identity ascribed
to individuals, such as race, but the division of society into workers and owners of the
means of production. I would argue that it is crucial to maintain clarity about this binary
created through capitalism in any attempt to make sense of specific antagonisms and how
they play out among specific groups and within specific contexts. A focus on local
conditions or particularistic experiences alone leaves unexamined how local conditions
function always in relation to the broader structures of society and unwittingly presumes
that a socially just world can be created one community at a time or one school at time.
Although it may be possible to support the academic achievement of students in a specific
school, for example, it would be impossible for all students to have similar access to
opportunities within a capitalist system because by definition capitalism requires a mass of
exploited workers. A narrow focus on internalized oppression as a function of home–
school relations alone leaves out the role that schools play in national and corporate
interests and the way racism aids in maintaining capitalism. While this does not preclude
the ethical necessity of improving local conditions, it does require clarity on the limits to
local changes so that we not lose sight of the greater goal of creating a world free from the
inhumanity—war, famine, exploitation—that capitalism breeds.
A second critique of critical theories is that they give primacy to class over other
antagonisms, such as racism or patriarchy. Class, however, is an organizing structure that
creates other divisions in society. This does not, however, suggest that class is more
important or has greater salience in the lives of people. Joel Kovel (2002) deals with this
critique eloquently, pointing out the explanatory power that class has in understanding
other antagonisms and the potential for transformation that it presents. I quote him:
This discussion may help clarify. . . the priority of different categories of what might be called
“dominative splitting”— . . . gender, class, race, ethnic and national exclusion, and, with the
ecological crisis, species. Here we must ask, priority in relation to what? If we intend prior in time,
then gender holds the laurel. . . If we intend prior in exi…